Chicago

The Windy City. Chi-Town. The Second City. City by the Lake. Whatever you call it, Chicago is pretty phenomenal.

The Windy City. Chi-Town. The Second City. City by the Lake. Whatever you call it, Chicago is pretty phenomenal.

Don’t you hate it when you have to fly to one of your favorite cities for work, but they keep you occupied indoors for most of your time there? Yeah, me too. I adore Chicago. Now, I know, it has its issues (like ALL cities, mind you), but I simply can’t get enough of Chicago. I always forget that it’s a real city…big, busy, noisy. I was reminded of the noise every night as the passing L Trains vibrated my hotel room…

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Chicago

As I mentioned, I was here on business which meant a limited time to get out and about; however, the Hilton Chicago is in a prime location for a little sight seeing and people watching. Located on South Michigan Avenue, you’re right across the street here from Grant and Millennium Parks and you can see Lake Michigan. (I’m a water sign and any chance to be close to any body of water gets me giddy. And what a body of water Lake Michigan is! First timers to Chicago almost always exclaim that it looks like the ocean).

So, if you’ve got more time to kill, check out all of the amazing things to do in this city. If you’re like me, busy with work, you can at least get out for a quick walk around. Lots of hotels are in historic buildings, including the Hilton Chicago. Built in 1927, the hotel has been purchased and sold and purchased again and remodeled …but, a lot of the original charm remains, including a gorgeous mural on the ceiling of the lobby.  I think it’s alway fascinating to find the histories of hotels and this glorious building went from an expensive hotel to bankruptcy during the Great Depression to Army barracks during World War II. Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel in the 1940s and I’m happily here earning Hilton points in 2017.

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Hilton Chicago

Out the doors and across the street are the glorious parks of Chicago.  Easily walkable, full of art and fountains.  I lucked out.  The weather this week in Chicago was GLORIOUS!  (Those of you that live here or come here frequently know that isn’t always the case).  There’s an interesting art installation at the end of Grant Park called Agora.  Agora is a sculptural piece by Polish artist, Magdalena Abakonwicz. The installation includes 106 sets of giant legs with torsos (no arms, no head).  You can get right up into this art installation which is really incredible.

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Agora
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Cloud Gate

The parks also feature the wonderful piece Cloud Gate. (You all know this piece as The Bean).  Go get a selfie with your reflection and the reflection of the city skyline.  You know you want to.  I should also mention that Chicago hosts free music nights in the park. What a great way to spend a summer evening.  If you can make that work, take a bottle of wine and some snacks and enjoy!

One of my other favorite things about

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Music in the Park

wandering a city, is looking at the murals and graffiti painted on buildings.  And Chicago doesn’t disappoint when it comes to “building art.”  Among the interesting things you might see on your walk:

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Ok, let’s get down to the important stuff: food.  Chicago has some of the best restaurants anywhere.  I’m going to give you the run down on three places that I experienced this week.  (Chicago has the best deep dish pizza around.  It’s an institution.  I didn’t get a chance to go for pizza this week, so I’m going to avoid the whole who-has-the-best-deep-dish-pizza-in-Chicago argument.  Ask a local.  They’ll tell you all about their favorite. Really. They’re quite passionate about this topic).

I did get to dine at Siena Tavern, the brainchild of Fabio Viviani, darling of the Top Chef franchise. I don’t believe you can eat a bad thing here.  I ordered the melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi.  Coworkers ordered the brick chicken diavolo and the lasagna and we shared.  I highly recommend this tactic as it means you can try more delicious food! Siena can be a bit loud because of the open design concept, so it may not be the best place to take your honey for a quiet meal, but maybe you can go when you’re angry and don’t want to speak to him or you can go with a group of loud girlfriends instead.

Another place you want to check out (with an appetite and some friends to help you plow through mass quantities of food) is River Roast.  Situated right on the revitalized Riverwalk, River Roast features roasted entrees meant to be shared family style.  You’ve got delicious options here for every appetite (we had chicken, fish, beef, and veggies) and a glorious view of the river and surrounding architecture.  There are fireworks on the LaSalle bridge on Tuesday nights in the summer (because, you know, when you can get outside in Chicago and the weather cooperates, you do it).  You’ll get a great view if you’re seated outside.

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Riverwalk Fireworks

If you’re at the Hilton Chicago, you might also want to grab a bite at Kitty O’Shea’s.  Located right in the hotel, they’ve got a mean cheeseburger and a nice patio right on Michigan Ave.

As I’m grabbing an Uber (or Lyft or cab) back to the airport, I’m reminded of a few additional thoughts. 1. Unless you are insane (or a well seasoned local) you do not want to drive in downtown Chicago.  Trust me.  (And mind your pedestrian self while crossing streets).  2. Take a chance to chat with someone that reminds you that the American dream still exists.  This week I rode with cab and Uber drivers from Brazil, Senegal, and Poland all making their way in Chicago by driving tourists like me around.  It’s refreshing to turn off the (horrible) news and talk to someone who appreciates the opportunities that can still be found here. 3. Tip your drivers and your servers well. They work hard and it’s difficult to make a living in a big city.

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Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Weekends are for hiking.

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Ah, weekends.  Weekends are for being outdoors and for hiking (unless it’s too hot, then I’m all for watching crap tv).  Last Saturday, we finally had a break in our string of triple-digit heat, so a run up to a monument I hadn’t yet visited was in order.

19399785_10213869218704356_7295497229630357940_nKasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is about 45 minutes north of Albuquerque outside of the Pueblo of Cochiti. The monument, well known in New Mexico, is so close that I never could figure out why it took me so long to get here. Get your Parks Passes ready…you’ll use them here as well as this monument is operated by the Bureau of Land Management.  (Really people, these passes pay for themselves if you make an effort to get out at all!)

The aptly named Tent Rocks Monument gets its name 19248086_10213869220024389_1696953187713309397_nfrom the cone- (or tent-) shaped rocks formed here by volcanic eruptions that happened 6-7 million years ago.  (I have a hard time wrapping my brain around just how long ago that was… exactly).  There are lots of interesting rock formations to see here.Pay your fee or hand over your interagency pass, then make the short drive up the road to the parking lot for the first trailhead.  Parking is plentiful, but will fill up as the day goes on. I suggest an early arrival, not only for parking, but also to beat the heat.  (No swanky indoor restrooms, but there are several port-a-potties and outhouses).

19420402_10213869219704381_6885571503379838962_nUpon arriving at the first trailhead, you have two loops to choose from.  (If you’re moderately active, you can easily do both trails in half a day).  The Cave Loop sets you steadily uphill until you reach….a cave!  According to the sign, the cave was made by humans at some point.  Not a lot of information, but it was amusing to watch the many middle aged people who thought they could climb up into the cave  (they couldn’t and you shouldn’t).  There is a decent amount of incline headed up to the cave and one path is much worse than the other in that respect.  If you’re avoiding steep incline, opt for the more popular trailhead rather than the return route.

We spend most of our time hiking the second trailhead into the slot canyon here.  If19429640_10213869218424349_423079624541916997_n you’ve been to Antelope Canyon in Arizona, you’re familiar with a slot canyon.  Slot canyons are deep and not very wide.  An area where wind and water have rushed through sandstone and/or limestone, slot canyons feature a lot of interesting, erosion-formed rock formations and some challenging (in a good way!) hiking.

The Slot Canyon trailhead increases about 630 feet in elevation in about a mile and a half.  Not wheelchair accessible, this trail is narrow and is complicated by a sandy hiking surface, narrow passages (you may have to wait for hikers coming from the other direction before you can pass), and several rocks – of varying sizes – that’ll you need to billy goat climb over (coming down over these rocks is always somehow more difficult to me).  The views are stunning.  I wanted to stop and look at things from every angle. Plan to spend a couple of hours here and make sure you’ve got a hat and some water; while our hiking day was fairly cool, it can get very hot and sunny here.

19429892_10213869220264395_3465022848691106998_nAfter hiking here, you can opt to drive about 4 more miles up an unpaved road to arrive at a second spot that features a memorial park and overlook.  There is a short trail here as well, but it isn’t long (and we didn’t hike it).  The overlook is worth stopping for as you get a great view of the surrounding geography.  On a clear day, you can see for a very long way.  We’re currently battling 10 forest fires in our state (if you can summon up rain, please send some our way!)  The view was a bit hazy, but still impressive.

 

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You might get hungry after all this hiking.  We neglected to bring a lunch and I was tempted to swipe a sandwich and some chips away from a family having a picnic nearby. Nothing to eat on-site here, so pack your lunch or plan to drive a bit further on to the Town of Cochiti Lake to find sustenance.

Carlsbad Caverns, Aliens, and Assorted Sights in Southeastern New Mexico

Caverns, Aliens, and Waterfalls…..

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Another summer week, another road trip….

Four friends decide they need a little excitement in their summer.  What do they do?  Pile into a “full size” car (how a certain rental car agency defines their soup cans) and head south into the sun (and heat).  Now, our group of four (my hiking and road trip adventure posse) had done some planning after Christa saw on tv that beautiful waterfalls exist in New Mexico.  Who knew?

Sitting Bull Falls is roughly 5 hours from Albuquerque, but it’s in close enough proximity to Carlsbad Caverns National Park and to the UFO Museum in Roswell to make an entertaining road trip…so we went.

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Smokey Bear

Loaded up with a cooler full of water, a bag full of snacks, Amy’s road trip CD’s (and ok, maybe a few bottles of wine), we headed out early, deciding that if we were going to road trip, we might as well do it up right.  Stop #1: The Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan.  I’m sure most of you know the story of Smokey Bear (and it is Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear), but I bet many of you didn’t know that little Smokey came from New Mexico.  An orphaned cub, he was found after a forest fire in the area in 1979, after which he became the ambassador for forest fire awareness.  Smokey lived out most of his days at the National Zoo in Washington DC, but was returned to be laid to rest in his native Capitan, NM.  You can visit Smokey’s grave and take some time wandering through a nice little museum with lots of pictures and information…and the sheet music to the Smokey Bear song which Jen had been singing to us prior to arriving in Capitan. She was a Brownie after all and it is a catchy little tune.  Admission is $2.  That gets you access to all the exhibits and a clean restroom!

About 30 minutes down the road, you’ll arrive at Stop #2:  the now sleepy little town of Lincoln.  Not much goes on in Lincoln these days, but if you are a western history buff, you’ll know that the town was made famous by a very violent period of history in New Mexico and that some serious poo with Billy the Kid went down in this little town. Lincoln is fairly quiet on a weekday in the middle of June.  You will need to purchase tickets if you want to go inside any of the buildings or you can do as we did….hum Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory, wonder about what happened to the cast of Young Guns, and check out the very interesting historic buildings still left standing in Lincoln.

It’s hot in southern New Mexico. Triple digit, full sun hot…and there’s not much in the way of food or drink in Lincoln on a Tuesday, so we jumped back in the soup can and headed out for Roswell to find some lunch before making our way to Carlsbad Caverns for the evening.  We’ll come back to Roswell in a bit because it too has some interesting things to see, but for now, I’m going to recommend a yummy, local lunch place, Big D’s Downtown Dive.  Big D’s has an assortment of excellent salads, sandwiches, and burgers.  They also have amazing garlic fries with fresh, finely chopped, garlicky garlic.  We all had some, thank God, because while they are amazingly tasty, they are not breath friendly.

It’s probably about 105 degrees at this point in our trip.  The soup can has no window tint, but it does, thankfully, have a functioning air conditioner.  90 miles to Carlsbad Caverns and the caverns never sounded so good – they stay at 56 degrees F year round. As we make our way to this amazing National Park (yep! your National Parks Pass is good here), we start wondering about how, exactly, Jim White discovered the caverns as a teenager in 1898 (give or take a year or two).  Was he just walking around when he discovered a big hole? And was brave enough to crawl into complete and utter darkness? Not worried about his personal safety or about plunging through the ground to his death?  We quickly decide it makes sense that a teenaged boy discovered this place and also determine that our group of four will never discover a massive cavern as we’re all far too concerned with things like heat, safety, being in the dark, finding spiders, and/or plunging to our deaths.

There are two ways into Carlsbad Caverns: elevators or hiking trail.  If you are physically able, I’d recommend walking down into the cavern via the hiking trail because it gives you a sense of how massive Carlsbad Caverns is.  (If you elevator in, don’t worry!  You still have a chance to see much of Carlsbad’s splendor and many parts of the cavern are wheelchair accessible).  The trail into the caverns descends over 800 feet in just over a mile.  Your shins will feel this the next day.  (IF you are absolutely insane, you can also hike back out this way.  The rest of us take the elevators up). Once you make it to the bottom of the cavern, you have the opportunity to walk all or some of a loop where you can marvel at the insides of this cave.  I’ve been to the Caverns more than once and it never gets old. I’m going to post a few photos here, but let me say that photos simply do not do justice to the beauty you will see here.  They just don’t.

After our hike around (we spent about 2 1/2 hours in the caverns – there’s THAT much to see), we decided to hang around to watch the bat flight. Carlsbad Caverns is home to some 500,000 (or so) Brazilian free-tailed bats.  The bats fly out of the cavern every evening at dusk to go eat insects.  You can have a seat in the amphitheater and watch them fly out of the caverns en masse.  It’s a pretty impressive sight. (You cannot take photos of the bats so you’ll have to take my word for it.)

After a night’s rest in Artesia (about 40 miles from Carlsbad with much cheaper lodging), we got up early to head down to Sitting Bull Falls – the original destination for our trip. On the approach to Sitting Bull Falls, you’re going to be thinking that there is no way a waterfall could ever spring up from the dry, flat, desolate land that you’re driving over.  In fact, at about the halfway point, you’ll consider turning back thinking that you must have made a wrong turn somewhere.  After passing lots of sand and cactus and a few free range cattle, you’ll see the landscape start to change, and after time, tucked away in a rock canyon…voilà! Sitting Bull Falls.

Sitting Bull Falls is a National Forest site so that means two things: your

Sitting Bull Falls
Sitting Bull Falls

parks pass is good here and there are clean restrooms.  Don’t forget your bathing suit as you can swim in the pool at the falls.  On a hot day, you will think of nothing else but jumping into that water. The hike from the parking lot to the falls is about a five minute walk on a paved trail.  You’ll pass over a rocky surface at the end of the trail to get into the pool itself. The water is supremely clear and it’s cold.  I mean it’s really cold.  The water temperature reminded me of the feel of water in the rivers of Montana..you know, snow runoff.  After taking a few photos, we stripped down to bathing suits and got right in…well, I got right in.  Brrrr….The other girls took a minute or two to adjust to the bone chilling temperature, but once we were all in, the water felt incredibly refreshing.

Out of the falls, we dried off almost immediately, jumped back in the car, and headed

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Sculptures in Artesia

back up the road to Artesia. While Artesia doesn’t have the draw that Carlsbad or Roswell (more coming on that) do, there are quite a few art installations downtown that are worth checking out, including a series of larger than life sculptures depicting the history and people in Artesia.

Our second road trip night was spent in Roswell.  Roswell, New Mexico is famous for….aliens and UFOs.  You heard me. Aliens. And UFOs.

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Aliens in Roswell

In 1947, a flying disc reportedly crashed just outside of Roswell.  Since 1947, the town of Roswell is crazy for all things extraterrestrial.  If you haven’t been to Roswell, it’s kind of a trip.  In many ways, Roswell is a typical small American town.  But in other ways it’s incredibly eclectic, in an alien focused kind of way. The downtown lamp posts are in the shape of alien heads, mannequins in store windows are alien and not human, and there is an alien of some sort in every parking lot and on every sign in town.  Roswell is also home to the International UFO Museum and Research Center.

The UFO Museum has grown a bit over the years.  Here you’ll find some exhibits showing what happened at the 1947 crash, information on the people that were first upon the alien crash scene, alien and UFO art, tales from people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, and so on.  Some new things have popped up here since my last visit, like this UFO complete with aliens, but most of the actual research and abduction stories are still the same which leads me to believe that aliens became bored with abducting us humans in about 1982…

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International UFO Museum and Research Center

Still, with a Groupon going on right now, this museum is worth a stop for a little fun.  You’ll be amazed at how many people from around the world stop by here on a monthly basis. So take a look around, take your photo with an alien and upon exiting the museum, buy an alien souvenir.  I mean, who doesn’t need an alien beer coozy?!

Beaches and the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico

When I left you last, we were headed back to San Juan.

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…..when I left you last, we were headed back to San Juan from La Parguera.

I think I mentioned before that when you travel for work you should pick your airline, pick your hotel chain and stick to them as best as you can to maximize points earning. Why? So that you can stay for free at gorgeous hotels like the Caribe Hilton, that’s why. I mean, look at this view.

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View from the Caribe Hilton

With hotel points to burn, we checked into the Caribe for our last two nights in Puerto Rico. The Greek-a-Rican had to get back to work, so we thought this would be a great chance for us to do a little more beach bumming and check out the more touristy sites of San Juan.

Early Monday morning, we called Uber for a ride up to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, an historic fort built on orders from King Charles V of Spain.  I don’t know if you know, but people have been fighting over the island of Puerto Rico for a long time.  This citadel lies on the northwestern most point of San Juan and is part of series of walls and fortifications built in the 16th Century to control entry into the harbor.  Construction on this World Heritage Site began in 1539 and the fort has been modified several times since to account for changing military technologies.

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El Morro

During the Spanish rule of Puerto Rico, 1539-1898, the Castillo was attacked several times but it managed to withstand attacks from the English, the Dutch, an earthquake, and the (ahem) Americans. From 1898-1961, the fort was part of an American military installment.  There is a beautiful esplanade in front of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and what did the Americans do?  Turned it into a golf course.  You can still see remnants of the putting greens today.

A walk around the fort was a lovely way to spend a morning.  It was sunny and steamy (of course) in San Juan, but if you wear your sunscreen and stay hydrated, you won’t have any issues.  Since the fort is a National Park (as of 1961), you can also find restrooms – the ladies’ room has an amazing ocean view, – a book store, and a place to buy bottled water or other refreshments.

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One of San Juan’s many stray cats in El Morro

Adjacent to El Morro, is the gorgeous little cemetery of Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis. Some people might think visiting a cemetery is creepy and weird, but not me.  In addition to the incredible artwork on the tombs here, I find that cemeteries are often one of the best places to uncover local history.  (I just cross myself, ask the dead people to forgive me for walking on them, and get to exploring).

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Tombstone at Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery

This little cemetery really had an old world charm and the artwork on some of the tombstones rivals anything you’d see in a museum.  The cemetery is fairly old; construction began in 1863 and some prominent Puerto Ricans have been laid to rest here over the years.  If you find yourself an El Morro, take the quick walk down the service road to take a look around.

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Cemetery of Maria Magdalena del Pazzis

Now if cemeteries aren’t your thing, you can walk (or hop the free trolley) down the road a bit to San Cristóbal.  This fortress was built by the Spanish and was completed in 1783.  It was the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.  It too was attacked by the English, the Dutch, and an earthquake. It was also an active military base during World War II.  You’ll notices some of the “upgrades” made to the edification during that time.

In addition to interesting history and architecture at San Cristobal, you’ll find this sign. What on earth happened that the Park Service had to explicitly tell us NOT to drink from toilets?! Someone must have tried — there’s a sign.

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Sign – San Cristobal

I quite enjoyed walking both El Morro and San Cristóbal as I found the history to be very interesting.  You can also play “guess how many selfie sticks we’ll see” or “if that were my kid I’d throw him off the side of the fort.” Fellow Americans, you can use your National Parks Pass to get into both of these amazing sites.  (Your pass is good for three people here.  If your group isn’t that large, do like we did and invite some folks in the group behind you to enjoy a walk around on you.)

There is some walking involved at both places including some incline and few sets of narrow winding stairs.  I wouldn’t recommend flip flops.  Do yourself a favor and

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Cannonballs at San Cristobal

put on some real shoes for this outing.  Those real shoes will also prove handy as you wander into Old San Juan where you’ll be walking the blue cobblestone streets.

We had a sneak peak at Old San Juan, but I was thrilled to have an afternoon to walk it.  I felt like we were part of an old Hollywood movie set. The buildings are so charming and the blue cobblestones (historians tell us that the cobblestones were made with iron furnace slag that had been part of the ballast sugar-carrying-ships from Spain) add to that feeling.  My friend and I felt very comfortable walking in the historic district here.  It can get busy, particularly as cruise ships pull into port.

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Blue Cobblestoned Streets in Old San Juan

The streets are lined with restaurants (get your frituras!), shops, hotels, and residences. Give yourself some time to just wander and enjoy the

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El Convento

view.  A couple of places I’ll point out to you here.  #1 Enjoy lunch at El Jibarito on Calle del Sol.  They served several traditional Puerto Rican dishes and some kind of fried cheese ball that was delectable.  #2 Get a popsicle at Señor Paleta (I highly recommend the Nutella popsicle). #3 Check out an amazingly quaint little bar at a boutique hotel that was converted from a convent, aptly named El Convento.

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Old San Juan

There are lots of places to explore and several charming courtyards to sit in.  The main plaza, Plaza de Armas is centrally located and is a great place to watch the world go by. San Juan is full of stray kitties.  Now I love kitties, so I was happy to see that San Juan feeds their strays.  If you aren’t a fan of cats, just leave them be.  They won’t bother you. (If you don’t love 18557226_10213520334422467_5547991093904067578_nkitties, I think something might just be wrong with you.)

After our hot day in San Juan, we took a cab ride back to the hotel for our last opportunity to beach bum.  The Caribe Hilton has both a nice swim beach and a beautiful pool.  Pick your poison, as they say.  I prefer to swim in the ocean but we did give the pool a quick test run before leaving. My “tan” has all but peeled off as I’m back a week already from Puerto Rico.

Until next time, San Juan.  I can’t wait to get back.

Puerto Rico: The Land of Beautiful Beaches and Fried Food

Welcome to Puerto Rico: home of beautiful beaches, crazy drivers, and fried food! Seriously, all three of these things exist in abundance on this gorgeous island.

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Welcome to Puerto Rico: home of beautiful beaches, crazy drivers, and fried food! Seriously, all three of these things exist in abundance on this gorgeous island.

Let me tell you about my quick jaunt to Puerto Rico…

Even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States (a territory, in fact) it is still part of the Caribbean and a full day of travel from my home base here in New Mexico. So after a flight to Fort Lauderdale, my friend and I hopped an interesting flight to San Juan. By interesting I mean this:

  1. Approximately two-thirds of our plane was reading Fifty Shades of Grey including a woman whose husband was seated in our row. We did our best to ignore the “romantic interludes” happening as he read over her shoulder. (Insert eye roll here. Save it for the bedroom, people).

  2. After being pushed away from the gate, we had to go back to the gate for a “medical emergency.” By this I mean, four people seemingly changed their minds about flying to Puerto Rico, stood up and exited the plane. Everyone seemed to be able-bodied and not currently in the throes of a medical condition.

  3. I overhear this half of an exchange from a flight attendant: “Oh, he’s a service dog? Well, he still can’t sit on the tray.” (People make fun of me for carrying Clorox wipes on the plane. THIS is exactly why I carry them. A dog’s pooper was on the surface where you enjoy your peanuts and drink. Think on that a while.

  4. People sitting in the exit row refused to help but then didn’t understand why they were asked to move.

  5. Everyone applauds when they land the plane. Maybe I just fly too much to appreciate the spontaneous joy of touching down on a runway.

My friend, Jenn, and I hop off the plane, avoid the baggage claim as we carried on and set off to find her friend (and now mine!), the Greek-a-Rican. (Brilliant nickname for a Greek who fell in love with Puerto Rico and moved there!)

Our first stop is to get a bite to eat and we end up at this wonderful little place that I’ll describe as a series of “food trailers” (think food trucks that are permanently parked). It is here that we are introduced to the Puerto Rican institution of fried food. Our Greek-a-Rican tour guide orders up a selection

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Alcapurrias
of alcapurrias – delectable little things: meat that’s been deep fried in a delicious covering – and some cold Medalla beer. The weather is beautiful, there’s music and deep fried deliciousness, everyone is dressed to impress and is enjoying the evening. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I’m wearing sneakers and a pair of capri pants with Oreo filling smushed on the thigh. I vow to do better tomorrow and we head home to catch up and get some sleep.

Our first full day includes breakfast in old San Juan and I’m immediately struck by how crazy the driving really is on the island. Secondly, I’m struck by the buildings. Everything looks straight out of a movie set. Buildings are done in the colonial style and are brightly colored.  I know we have time to see much more of the old city on Monday, so we head out to see the sights.  When I say sights, I mean beaches and Puerto Rico has some stunning ones.

Spending a day at the beach seems to be the Puerto Rican way to live.  People come prepared to lounge, swim, eat and drink for the span of an entire day.  Our friend tells us that in Puerto Rico it’s not legal to have a “private beach” and

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Beach just outside of San Juan
for that reason, you’ll see folks pulled over pretty much anywhere it looks safe to swim.  Carpe diem, I say!  We stopped at a secluded bit of beach to finally jump into the waters.

I cannot get enough ocean swimming even though I know a sunburn is inevitable. We stay in the water as long as possible, but as we have a destination in mind for today, we eventually haul our waterlogged bodies out of the surf. Since our friend and guide, Manos, promises to feed us more fried goodies and to make a stop along The Pork Highway (what?!) for some lechón (a whole pig slowly roasted on a spit), we pile into the car and head out.

We’re headed eventually to a little town on the southwestern coast called La Parguera, but we’ve got a few stops to make along the way. Stop number one is at a roadside stand where we meet some friends of our guide know simply as Juan y Cuba. Juan y Cuba are cooking up the tastiest frituras in all of Puerto Rico and we make a quick stop at the stand for some bacalaíitos – salt cod fritters or, as I like to call them, fried heaven on earth – and for some  pinonos – slices of plaintain filled with seasoned ground beef,

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The roadside fritura stand of Juan y Cuba
fried of course. Las Frituras while not super diet friendly are amazingly tasty.

Don’t be afraid to stop at one of these little roadside stands. The cooking isn’t fancy, but it’s delicious. Ask around for a recommendation or stop at one with lots of locals on line.  If you’re headed along our same route, make sure you stop along The Pork Highway (really, it’s a thing) to have a taste of lechón. This slow roasted pork is delectable. We ate very well in Puerto Rico.

Along our drive to the other coast we pass through the beautiful mountains of Puerto Rico. Wait…what? Mountains? Yes! I didn’t know it either, but the island is quite mountainous.

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Western beaches

Plenty of gorgeous beaches await us this side of the mountains as well and I’m thankful that we have a couple of days to swim, meet up with some friends,  to explore – oh, and eat more food: pinchos, corn drenched in butter, papas asadas….yummy!

There’s so much to do on this side of the island, but we’ve come to La Parguera for one specific reason…to swim in the Bioluminescent Bay.

La Parguera
View of the bay from La Parguera

Puerto Rico has a few of these bioluminescent bays. Both of my friends have been to the bay in La Parguera before. After some crossed wires and a cheap (and fairly disappointing) outing into the bay the first night, we all agreed that we’d postpone our drive back to San Juan to have another go at the bioluminescence. We signed up with Paradise Scuba and Snorkeling to go out on the 6:30 tour. There are lots of tour providers in town, but I would highly recommend springing for the experience you’ll get with Paradise.

We headed out into the balmy evening on a beautiful boat where we were fed chicken empanadas (yay! más frituras!) and more ice cold Medalla (yay! más cerveza!) while we made the slow cruise to a secluded bay of water about 12 feet deep.  Once anchored, Captain Kiko shares with us all a little bit about the bioluminescent bay and what makes it so special.  Conditions are just right in this area of water to attract and retain tiny plankton called dinoflagellates.  These little guys light up or luminesce when agitated. How do you agitate plankton, you ask?  Well, you swim with them.  Jenn and Manos jumped into the water before the captain had finished the last word of his speech.  I remained on board for a few moments to try to capture this phenomenon with my good camera – to no avail. After a few shots that didn’t render the desired outcome, I left the camera aboard in a dry bag, and jumped into the warm water myself.

There are really no words in English or in Spanish (or in any other language) to convey what a magical experience this is, but I’m going to try.  The water in this bay is warm, about 88 degrees F, and it’s calm.  With the boat lights out, you can see what seems like every star in the universe in the sky and in the water you see a magical glitter.  These little plankton begin to shine and twinkle as you swim.  It’s almost as if you’re covered in some kind of magical fairy dust or water stars.  The experience is enough to make grown men giggle in delight like little girls – and they did.  We all did.  Our 45 minutes in the water with these little dinoflagellates ended much too quickly.  I plan to go back – as many times as I can in my lifetime. There’s nothing like it.

Feeling giddy from swimming in such a magical environment, we hate to leave, but we’ve got reservations at the Hilton Caribe in San Juan for a couple of nights…..

 

Ode on a Summer Road Trip

What is it about jumping in the car, rolling down the windows and turning up the radio that’s so appealing? If it’s faster and more convenient to fly, why is the summer road trip still so good?

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Tired of being in airports for the last 10 weeks or so, I decided to change things up and drive to my next two destinations for work meetings.  Now, the drive from Albuquerque to West Texas isn’t terribly exciting, but as I began packing I found myself longing for the days of the good old summer road trip.

What is it about jumping in the car, rolling down the windows and turning up the radio  that’s so appealing?  If it’s faster and more convenient to fly, why is the summer road trip still so good?

Is it the memories of childhood road trips?  Hours in the car, antagonizing (or being antagonized by) my kid brother?  Was it the novelty of stopping to eat along the way? Or, because my mother was a teacher, stopping to see the historic sites?  The latter I’ve become increasingly thankful for.  As an adult, I appreciate the fact that I have seen far more of the country than many other people my age because of my mom’s insistence that we learn something along the way.  (Truthfully, the stops probably also gave her some reprieve).  Or is it remembering the impromptu trips I took with friends when we were old enough to head out and explore on our own?  Jumping in the car for a weekend, heading wherever the wind takes you was a fantastic luxury of my 20s that I perhaps didn’t appreciate as much as I should have.

Maybe it’s a combination of all these things, but as I made my 4+ hour drive today, I began to think that it’s the opportunity, alone in a car, to quietly address and resolve the many thoughts rattling around my brain on any given day.  Time to be alone and clear your mind while just focusing on the road going by, letting thoughts come and go.  Thoughts like: “Why in the world does the town of Wagon Wheel, New Mexico have a U-Haul rental?”  (At last count, there were about 350 people in the area surrounding this little town).

photostudio_1494197940047There is a lot of open road between Albuquerque and Lubbock, Texas, but every now and again, driving an old stretch of Route 66, you come upon remnants of homes, gas stations, businesses that were once part of thriving communities before the latest Interstates were developed.  I found myself wondering about the people that lived in these little communities and the handful of people that still eke out their living in towns were little remains.  What happened to the owners of these now dilapidated buildings and abandoned homes?  Where did they go?  Why didn’t the houses pass on to other owners?  I really wonder about the homes that are still full of stuff…

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There are mysteries along Route 66.  One of the most mystifying is the disappearance and probable murder of two couples traveling through the town of Vaughn, New Mexico back in 1935.  The baffling story is still a mystery 82 years later.  (You can read about it here.) I drove through several sites today and found my brain wondering what secrets those old buildings might still hold…. I may never know, but pulled over at the side of the road to get a closer look.

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Lest you think there are only old ruins along the roads, you will find a few curiosities that aren’t so…serious.  Like this giant cowboy on the side of Highway 60 before crossing the Texas border.

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The popular Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, where, the story goes, an eccentric millionaire buried Cadillacs in the ground. Why? I don’t know. (Mind the million empty spray paint cans on the ground).

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Who knows what I’ll find on my return trip, but I plan relish the sound of my voice singing along with a much too loud radio and to enjoy the feel of wind through my hair (even though that means my hair will get tangled).  Let’s go on a road trip – it’ll be an adventure.